by Alexa Schwerha
College enrollment rates still have not recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to National Student Clearinghouse data published Thursday.
While fall undergraduate enrollment rates stabilized in 2022 after tallying about 0.6% fewer students than 2021 levels, there are still 1.1 million fewer students enrolled than was recorded in 2019, according to data released Thursday. Adam Kissel, visiting fellow on higher education reform at the Heritage Foundation, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that that there are multiple factors that could contribute to this downward trend including population decline, pandemic-era mandates and deemphasized importance on college degrees.
“College enrollment is facing multiple pressures,” Kissel said.
Like many institutions across the world, colleges and universities responded to the pandemic by shuttering their doors and sending students home during the spring 2020 semester. As they began to re-open, students were expected to comply with mandates demanding they wear face masks, be fully vaccinated and social distance or quarantine to mitigate spread of the virus.
Some schools, including Yale, Fordham and Harvard University, still update their vaccine mandates to reflect the latest booster. Other schools, like Rhode Island College, require students to wear masks in certain on-campus settings.
The University of Massachusetts Boston mandated masks for the beginning of the spring 2023 semester, but revised the policy to be “optional” on Jan. 18.
“Pandemic-era mandates proved that colleges are often authoritarian, irrational, and not any fun, so many high school students chose to delay college or chose other paths,” Kissel told the DCNF. “That’s a main reason we saw a larger dip in recent years and some recovery this academic year.”
Alternatives to colleges also became popular because of the increasing cost of college tuition, Kissel alleged. Many states no longer require college degrees for employment, which also makes obtaining a degree less of a priority for potential applicants.
Maryland dropped college degrees as a requirement for thousands of state jobs in March 2022, NPR reported. Pennsylvania also dropped college degree requirements for 92% of its government jobs, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro tweeted.
“Every Pennsylvanian should have the freedom to chart their own course and have a real opportunity to succeed,” Shaprio said in a press release sent to the DCNF. “They should get to decide what’s best for them – whether they want to go to college or straight into the workforce – not have that decided for them.”
“Colleges will continue to face downward enrollment pressures as fewer students see why they should choose expensive degrees, more alternatives become popular, degree inflation reverses, and demographics offer fewer 18- and 19-year-olds,” Kissel told the DCNF.
The National Student Clearinghouse data found that while overall undergraduate enrollment is declining, freshmen enrollment rates for the fall 2022 semester increased from the previous year. Freshman enrollment increased approximately 4.3% from 2021, but still remains 150,000 fewer than in 2019.
The declining birth is also a concern that contributes to fewer students being enrolled in college, according to Kissel. National Center for Health Statistics data revealed that fertility rates in women aged 20-24 decreased 43%, while rates increased 67% for women aged 35-39.
Annual birth rates declined from approximately 4.1 million to 3.7 million between 1990 and 2019, according to the data.
The National Student Clearinghouse did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment. The National Center for Health Statistics declined to comment.
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Alexa Schwerha is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “College Classroom” by Yan Krukau.